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Elliot Essman’s Wine Pages

Many Americans enjoy learning about wine. Some American wine aficionados spend enormous sums on wine collections, specialized glassware designed to get the best out of particular varieties of wine, temperature controlled wine storage devices, and wine cellars; it may be difficult to distinguish between true lovers of wine and the “wine snobs” whose only desire is to impress others with wine knowledge. An even larger group of Americans enjoy wine tastings and classes in a simple attempt to know more about wine, even if their wine budgets are modest.The United States has commercial wineries in every state; more than 3,000 in total. The top four states—California, Washington, New York, and Oregon—account for more than 90% of all American wine production. About 25% of all wine consumed in the United States is imported.

Early Spanish settlers in the American southwest and California began wine production in the 17th century. In the 18th century, American founding father Thomas Jefferson made several attempts to grow quality European wine grapes on his Monticello estate in Virginia, though without much success. In the late 19th century, French, Italian and German winemakers founded high quality wineries in California, but national prohibition of alcoholic beverages in 1919 devastated the industry and ruined decades of patient viniculture. After repeal of prohibition in 1933, the brewers and distillers were able to get back to business with relative speed, but American wine took more than a generation to recover. Today’s American wines satisfy virtually every market niche, from world-class vintages to everyday dinner wines down to bulk wines and the cheap fruit juice and wine concoctions known as “wine coolers.”

Wine boomed in the 1970s only to undergo a steady decline throughout the 1980s and early 1990s as American states almost universally raised their minimum drinking ago to 21, and as health concerns and concerns over drinking and driving put a dent into consumption of all alcoholic beverages. Wine consumption has seen a steady upswing to all time highs since 1994, however, though both per capita consumption and total production lag behind that of the top wine producing countries—France, Italy and Spain.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) maintains strict controls over wine labeling in the United States as it pertains to area of origin, alcohol content, type designation, vintage and grape variety. The American varietal system of naming wines gives major stress to the type of grape: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, shiraz (syrah) and zinfandel in the case of popular red wines; chardonnay above all in the case of whites. This system sometimes conflicts with European regional wine-naming conventions; a French Chablis (made from chardonnay grapes) can only come from a limited area in Burgundy, while an American “Chablis” can refer to a wine (or blend of wines) from nearly any vineyard.

Sparkling wines in the United States can cause even more confusion. Every last one is sold in a bottle characteristic of French Champagne. If sold in France, Champagne can only come from the geographical region called Champagne and must be made according to the exacting méthode champenoise. Some costly American “champagnes” are made following the méthode champenoise while others may be little more than cheap white wine into which bubbles have been injected.

The best American wineries do not resort to this kind of confusing labeling. Dedicated American winemakers feel their products can stand on their own without having to trick buyers into believing they are French.

California dominates in many areas of American agriculture, and wine is no exception. Some of the state’s vineyards generate wines in tremendous bulk, others produce the most highly regarded and expensive wines in the country; many fall in between the two extremes. Napa and Sonoma counties just north of San Francisco are the best known fine wine areas, but Mendocino, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Monterrey, San Luis Obispo, and a number of other counties support a thriving wine industry. Hundreds of these wineries (and thousands more across the United States) do a brisk business welcoming guests for wine tastings and wine tours.

The number of wines available in American markets has doubled and redoubled in recent years; southern hemisphere wines (from Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, and particularly Australia) have provided strong competition to American producers.

Each of the fifty American states have laws and regulations that determine where and how alcoholic beverages can be sold or served (within states, there can be variations on a county-by-county basis; the US has hundreds of “dry” counties). Some American restaurants without licenses to serve alcohol allow customers to bring in their own wine, charging a fee for “uncorking.” Wine is sold only in liquor or “package” stores in some states, in supermarkets in others. In large cities, specialized wine shops may hold tastings and give classes in wine appreciation.

Because of the confusing array of laws regarding wine sales, the issue of wine shipment from producers in one state to individual consumers in another has become a legal battleground. Most wine producers want to be able to ship directly to Americans in their homes; most wine distributors and dealers want to keep their share of the market. Some states allow shipments of wine from other states that offer their own residents “reciprocity.” Other states ban wine shipments to consumers entirely. A middle group allows certain shipments but limits quantities or otherwise makes the process difficult or expensive. Private individuals may never legally ship wine in the United States.

Private individuals can and do make wine at home for their own use; like home beer brewing, home winemaking is a passionate hobby among many Americans.

The rise in wine interest mirrors the general trend among the American population to greater sophistication in all culinary matters, but wine has a long way to go before it will be able to compete among the general American public with beer and spirits, among alcoholic beverages. Americans still spend twice as much on spirits as on wine, nearly four times as much on beer. A Gallup poll also found wine a distant third among the critical 18-29 year old market group, the very consumers the wine industry has tried for years to attract.